No Fracking Way
As the BP oil spill fiasco unraveled in the Gulf of Mexico, my reaction was two-fold:
1) frustration, anger and a sense of helplessness at an avoidable environmental disaster happening so far from home, and
2) guilty relief that the disaster was not happening on my doorstep.
Last Saturday, any lingering sense of localized comfort was thoroughly demolished when I attended a screening of Josh Fox’s superb documentary movie Gasland. Leaving aside pride that our local high school was opened up for the event, that some 500 people filled the auditorium, raising money for school equipment in the process, and that Representative Maurice Hinchey attended for a post-screening Q&A, Gasland left me – and just about everyone else who saw it – feeling emotionally devastated and frightened. Why? Because, unless immediate and concrete action is taken to prevent the gas industry from engaging in “fracking” across the Marcellus Shale that lies underneath fully 50% of New York State and 75% of Pennsylvania, there is the very real possibility that our beautiful homeland, our streams, our water supplies, and possibly those of the 15,000,000 people in the tri-State area who can thank the reservoirs of the Catskills and the Delaware River Watershed for the largest unfiltered source of water in the world, will be permanently and irrevocably devastated.
I don’t intend to write an original essay here. If there’s any good news to share, it’s that enough of our local citizens and journalists, and even politicians, have read up on the process, seen Gasland, and begun organizing. So I will quote here mostly from other sources. Please read on through this primer on fracking, wherever you live: fracking has reached New York State, but as you’ll find out later, it’s not stopping here.
-What is Gasland?
As a friend of mine wrote when sending out an e-mail after watching the movie,
“Gasland is about hydraulic fracturing to extract natural gas (fracking). Millions of gallons of water mixed with over 596 toxic, carcinogenic and neurotoxic chemical are injected at high pressure deep into the earth to fracture the shale layers and release the gas. This is happening all over the country, poisoning the water supplies (drinking, bathing, wildlife, agriculture) and the air (the gas wells in Ft. Worth, TX emit more air pollutants than all the vehicles combined in that huge city). People are getting sick and dying, wildlife and livestock are sickening and dying, the environment is devastated and people’s drinking water ignites coming out of the tap.”
“Sixty miles west of Damascus, PA, the town of Dimock, population 1,400, makes all too clear the dangers posed by hydraulic fracturing. You don’t need to drive around Dimock long to notice how the rolling hills and farmland of this Appalachian town are scarred by barren, square-shaped clearings, jagged, newly constructed roads with 18-wheelers driving up and down them, and colorful freight containers labeled “residual waste.” Although there is a moratorium on drilling new wells for the time being, you can still see the occasional active drill site, manned by figures in hazmat suits and surrounded by klieg lights, trailers, and pits of toxic wastewater, the derricks towering over barns, horses, and cows in their shadows.
The real shock that Dimock has undergone, however, is in the aquifer that residents rely on for their fresh water. Dimock is now known as the place where, over the past two years, people’s water started turning brown and making them sick, one woman’s water well spontaneously combusted, and horses and pets mysteriously began to lose their hair.
-How has such environmental damage been allowed to occur? Don’t we have laws to prevent it?
Well, we did. From the July issue of Chronogram,
“Part of the reason that fracking exists at all dates back to 2005, when Vice-President Dick Cheney crafted the Halliburton Loophole, which was then inserted with little fanfare into that year’s energy bill. The Halliburton Loophole authorizes oil and gas drillers, exclusively, to inject known hazardous materials directly into, or adjacent to, underground drinking water supplies, bypassing the regulations required by the Clean Water Act, the Clean Water Drinking Act, the Clean Air Act, and the Superfund.”
-Wow. All those Acts designed to protect us, and none of them enforceable thanks, supposedly, to Dick Cheney. Why is it called the Haliburton Loophole anyway?
From the Woodstock Times:
Methods of fracking were developed by Halliburton, whose former CEO Dick Cheney was U.S. Vice President in 2005.
-Oh. Well, how bad is the contamination?
Can you imagine the beautiful creeks in the Catskills, those that I’ve been swimming in during the current heatwave, frequently photographing and including in my iWitness section, bubbling with so much gas that they’re actually inflammable, as is shown in Gasland happening elsewhere in the country? For that matter, can you imagine being able to set fire to your tap water? Watch this clip from Gasland and see for yourself… and then see Josh Fox being interviewed by Jon Stewart on the Daily Show. (Where would our news be without Comedy Central?)
|The Daily Show With Jon Stewart||Mon – Thurs 11p / 10c|
-How is this happening on private land?
As Fox reveals at the beginning of his movie, and in the clip above, landowners – like him – are enticed to lease their land by gas companies at a rate of up to $5000 per acre. In economically depressed rural America, this kind of money can seem like a life-line – and many people have already leased their land in several counties around the Catskills in anticipation of a financial wind-fall. Given the inherently positive PR by the gas industry, landowners generally have no idea what they are letting themselves in for. At least until now. Now there is less excuse. The Catskills Citizens for Safe Energy group is inviting landowners to take a pledge not to lease their land. When things turn into a horror show, to the point that the gas companies have to ship in fresh drinking water to landowners because their wells have been poisoned, the landowners are typically forced to sign a non-disclosure agreement (Check the Vanity Fair story for specific examples.)
-Can the gas companies take over private land anyway?
Yes, though fortunately not in New York State. But out west – Fox traveled through 25 States to make his movie – landowners rarely have access to the “mineral rights” beneath the surface. It’s not uncommon for landowners to find the gas companies setting up wells almost right outside their front door. (This is not clearly explained in the movie itself; it came up during the Q&A session at Onteora last Saturday night.) In addition, in some states, like Texas, oil and gas companies have right of eminent domain for exploration and production.
-How much water is used during the fracking process?
Generally 1-8 million gallons of water may be used to frack a well. [That’s up to 200 tanker trucks bringing in water for each frack.] A well may be fracked up to 18 times.
-What fluids are used in the fracking process?
From the Gasland web site:
For each frack, 80-300 tons of chemicals may be used. Presently, the natural gas industry does not have to disclose the chemicals used, but scientists have identified volatile organic compounds (VOCs) such as benzene, toluene, ethylbenzene and xylene.
And from the Phoenicia Times/Olive Press July 1st edition):
A 2008 investigation identified at least 65 chemicals used in gas drilling that were classified as hazardous or toxic under federal environmental laws.
-What is this doing to the water supply?
Apart from the documented cases of localized well water being poisoned, and tap water catching fire, there’s the wider issue. From the Woodstock Times:
Due to the vast quantities of water required for injection into the ground, there is concern that fracking has depleted local water supplies in many areas. Because injected water is mixed with chemicals, some of the water is then sequestered deep underground to keep it out of the water table. The portion that returns to the surface with the natural gas must be trucked away to disposal sites. Both actions effectively remove it from the local water supply.
-Does the gas industry deny these allegations?
Of course they do. The American Petroleum Institute has established a web site, energyindepth.org, dedicated to debunking Gasland. It also sends shills around to Gasland screenings to attempt to debunk the movie in person. (One such shill was present at Onteora, handing a science teacher a lengthy document denying the movie’s allegations.) Josh Fox, whose movie won a Special Jury Prize at the 2010 Sundance Film Festival, has in turn set about debunking the debunking. As Fox notes, in his Chronogram interview:
The natural gas industry has done a mind-boggling job of promoting gas as clean energy. It’s not clean energy. It’s a dirty fossil fuel that contaminates when it’s extracted and the hydraulic fracturing process is so labor intensive and vents off so much gas into the atmosphere, it’s debatable as to whether or not natural gas is cleaner than coal.
And in his Woodstock Times interview:
“There’s fracking going on in 34 states. Companies that go to a new place are saying, ‘It’s not going to happen here the way it did in Texas; it will be completely different.’ I went to as many places as I could. I wanted to find out where it was going well, and what they were doing differently. I didn’t find those places. The industry is attacking the film and saying these are worst-case scenarios. I’ve challenged them – if you have a town with at least 100 wells (which is not a large number – some towns have 10,000 wells) and everyone is happy and rich, then take me there. So far there’s been no response.”
It’s well worth noting that the way big business works in such scenarios is that the proof of damage rests on the plaintiff. A landowner’s $5000 per acre leasing windfall could easily disappear in legal fees, while the gas companies have billions of dollars in gas profits to draw on and deny the allegations. As a writer, I’m not fond of the expression that “a picture is worth a thousand words” but the movie Gasland tells enough stories, with both anecdotal and empirical evidence, that I am not going to accuse every American citizen featured therein of lying or fabrication. Besides, several gas companies have already been fined and admitted wrong-doing. In addition, when landowners win law suits – many have found themselves in the ludicrous position of having gas companies ship in drinking water because their natural well has become poisoned (a situation that does not solve the problems of bath or laundry water) – they are forced to sign non-disclosure agreements, effectively being muzzled from speaking out about their experiences.
-What measures are being taken to prevent or administer fracking in New York State?
According to Chronogram,
In June of last year, two identical bills—the FRAC Act—were introduced to both the US House and the Senate. FRAC stands for Fracturing Responsibility and Awareness of Chemicals Act. The House bill was introduced by Diana Degette (D-CO), Jared Polis (D-CO), and Maurice Hinchey (D-NY). These bills are designed to allow the Environmental Protection Agency to regulate hydraulic fracturing and require the energy industry to reveal what chemicals it uses in the process.
Locally, in New York State, the Sweeney-Thompson bill (S8129B/A11443B) would place a moratorium on fracking until May 11, 2011. According to Catskills Citizens for Safe Energy,
We believe we now have the votes in the NYS legislature to pass a statewide moratorium bill, but the Democratic leadership in the Senate seems reluctant to bring it to a vote. [As of writing, the Assembly is on recess and shows no sign of returning to session soon. Truly concerned citizens should contact Senate Assembly Leader Sampson and encourage him to bring his own co-sponsored Sweeney-Thompson bill (S8129B/A11443B) to the vote as soon as possible.]
-What other steps are being taken?
On Tuesday July 20, a 91-yr old Pete Seeger joined a press conference on the steps of the Capitol Building in Albany (see clip below). Listen, if Seeger can still get out and protest, surely you can, too.
-Does this affect only the USA and its famously out-of-control energy consumption?
No. According to the Vanity Fair article,
Shale land is already being leased in Western and Central Europe while foreign companies buy up land in the Marcellus Shale. A May 25 memorandum of economic and strategic dialogue between the U.S. and China prominently lists an initiative to help China assess and extract its own shale gas as an item of agreement. In Australia, where fracking has been sweeping the Queensland countryside and where landowners have little or no control over their mineral rights, a furor has been growing over the water contamination happening around drilling locations.
-What can I do?
For starters, watch Gasland. It’s currently available “on demand” on HBO. If you don’t have HBO, find someone who does, and ask them to host a viewing. Or better yet, take the initiative yourself, like Mike Koegel of Mama’s Boy Market in Phoenicia who, as a concerned citizen and community figure, is presenting free screenings of Gasland at 7 PM this Thursday, July 22nd & Sunday, July 25th.
-What else can I do??
You can become further informed by following any of the links on this page. They in turn lead to many more links and much more detailed information. And you can start telling people you meet to pass the word: No Fracking Way.